BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – He finally came back.
Twenty years after his acrimonious firing cleaved a passionate fan base into fragmented pieces, Bob Knight — the man most synonymous with Indiana University, which places so much pride in its basketball program — returned to Assembly Hall.
On Saturday, Indiana played host to nemesis Purdue, and at halftime paid homage to the 1980 Hoosiers team that won the Big Ten championship. And Bob Knight was finally there — joined by a large number of his former players from across numerous decades.
For countless Indiana fans, this moment came after two decades of waiting. For Indiana’s athletics department, it was neither expected, nor a surprise.
The door has always been open to Knight’s return, particularly since Fred Glass took over as athletic director in 2009.
IU inducted him into its hall of fame that same year. Knight declined the invitation, saying he did not want to distract from the other inductees, among them Steve Downing, one of his former players and Jerry Yeagley, a longtime contemporary during Knight’s years in Bloomington.
Still, Indiana persisted, politely. The university offered to hold his induction in a separate ceremony. He has a standing invitation to every one of the anniversaries and reunions Indiana holds for his various championship teams. There was even once a rumor IU offered to name its practice facility, at that time still under construction, after the legendary coach.
When Knight passed on appearing during the 2016 40th anniversary celebration of his undefeated 1976 national championship team, it was widely seen as the closing of that proverbial door. Knight continued to speak at occasional functions around Indianapolis and Bloomington, but it was presumed he had made up his mind once and for all about returning to the place where his achievements became legend.
Then, in the spring, the story changed.
First, it became public that Knight and his wife planned to move back to Bloomington. The man who once boasted more wins than any other Division I men’s basketball coach in history started popping up around town in the most everyday ways — at restaurants or in the stands at youth sporting events.
Then, on April 6, just before first pitch in a game between IU’s baseball team and Penn State, Knight arrived all but unannounced at Bart Kaufman Field. He watched from an empty suite in the press box.
All of that precipitated a public event in November at the Bluebird when Knight, asked whether he’d consider returning to an IU basketball game, responded by saying, “Let’s go tomorrow.”
That visit finally came Saturday, during a pre-planned reunion of former IU players, coaches and managers. Knight’s arrival was greeted with rapturous applause. The man who once swore he’d never return to Indiana did.
What does that mean long-term?
For some, Knight’s shadow faded from view years ago. For some, it was never there.
But for some, undeniably, Saturday closed a years-old wound, one that tore deeply into this fan base two decades ago and then healed slowly, but never fully.
Now perhaps it can, for anyone who needs it. Knight’s presence Saturday won’t beat Purdue, win the Big Ten or break what is now a 33-year wait for a sixth national championship. But it brings the most beloved figure back to a program desperate to marry its illustrious past to an ambitious present, and probably provides a measure of closure to anyone who might need it.
Bob Knight came back to Assembly Hall on Saturday. A sentence that for so long seemed so unbelievable, until the moment it no longer was.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.